The media ia briefed on the UAV, unmanned aerial vehicle. New drone technology with heat sensitive cameras is being used to fight against wildlife crime in the Kruger National Park A demonstration was held near the Letaba Rest Camp. Picture: Karen Sandison 070216

Poachers now face an additional obstacle in the form of newly developed drone technology, aimed at tracking them down during the night, when they are most likely to operate.

The company, UAV and Drone Solutions (UDS) - which was approached by the Peace Parks Foundation to assist in the fight against wildlife crime - has been flying and testing the effectiveness of their unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones in the Kruger National Park for the past year.

The idea behind the drones was to empower game rangers to have night-time capability, UDS chief executive Otto Werdmuller von Elgg explained.

Rangers would contact the UDS team, alerting them of a problem in a specific area. The team would then use their drone to identify potential perpetrators of wildlife crime and immediately send co-ordinates to the rangers, who could then continue tracking the suspects on the ground.

During a demonstration near Kruger’s Letaba rest camp recently, the UDS team showed how they had developed relatively low-cost technology to cater specifically to harsh African bush conditions.

The drone, which looked like a small model aircraft, had a small, rotatable, heat-sensitive camera attached to its nose.

It was launched using a bungee system, which made it easier to use in dense bush spaces than other similar aircraft, which need longer runways to take off.

“It needed to be deployed very quickly from anywhere,” Werdmuller von Elgg said.

Sitting in a large van which serves as a control and command centre, pilot Stephan de Necker planned the drone’s flight path on a computer before the launch, and then later used the computer to adjust its route as needed.

Next to him, sensor operator Antoinette Dudley used controls similar to that of a PlayStation to control the movement of the camera.

On two computer screens in front of her, a black-and-white live feed was displayed from the camera, with objects with higher temperatures showing up clearly as darker figures.

Because of the high temperatures during the day, this technology was mainly used at night.

The difference in temperatures at night made it easier to differentiate the shape of different figures - animals had a horizontal orientation while humans had a vertical orientation.

UDS was the first organisation to be granted a commercial licence to fly a drone in South Africa.

“It’s unique in that we’re allowed to fly beyond the visible line of sight,” Werdmuller von Elgg explained.

The almost completely silent drone could stay in the air for up to two-and-a-half hours, was licensed to fly up to 400m above ground and up to 26km from the control centre vehicle.

Made of foam and relatively light at only 3.7kg, the UAV is quick and easy to put back together in case of a crash - another benefit over other similar drones.

He added they were continually developing and changing the technology.

“This is just the start. Stuff is coming that we haven’t even thought of yet. (They are) getting smaller, lighter cheaper. We are evaluating the effectiveness as we go along.”